Whatever it takes, right Marvel Studios? The effort to get to this point, even if you are to discount the network televisions shows, the Netflix shows and whatever other media the MCU has come out with, is nothing short of remarkable really, an effort that has changed the paradigm of blockbuster cinema. Avengers: Endgame is a finale of sorts for that process – only a very naive person actually thinks this franchise is coming to a halt – and also serves as a conclusion for the story that began in Avengers: Infinity War.
One of my main complaints about that film was that it was very obviously only half a narrative, cut off in the middle of Act Two, the audience left dangling on a “shock” ending that failed to resonate owing to the certainty it would be reversed in some manner. Well, here’s Part Two. Everyone on the planet seems to have either seen or be about to see this film, so I don’t think I need to build it up with any more preamble. Was Endgame a fitting conclusion to what Marvel Studios has only just decided to start calling “The Infinity Saga”? Or is it an over-written, elongated snorefest?
Five years removed from “the Snap”, the survivors on Earth struggle to move on from the disappearance of half of the universe’s population. Many of the remaining Avengers – purposeless Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), depressed Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), detached Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr), almost comically messed-up Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and newly bloodthirsty Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) – are lacking in direction and hope. But the sudden re-appearance of a missing Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), and the work of a permanently hulked up Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) provides a slim chance to change everything, via a journey through time to thwart the plans of Thanos (Josh Brolin) before they ever come to fruition.
I feel like it is best to approach Endgame through the prism of the three ways that it comes across to me. The first is from a plot perspective, with the first hour especially being quite plot heavy. This is the section that feels like the continuation of Infinity War’s plot, the Part Two that was ripped so unconvincingly from Part One, and at least with a now complete narrative I am more comfortable offering a final assessment.
And that assessment is generally positive. Yes, things flag a bit with Endgame not quite being able to match the excellence of Infinity War when it comes to pacing, that first hour especially. There are so many characters and plots to be included here – all of the names mentioned above have their own sub-plots you need to keep an eye on, and those are just the ones I mentioned – that a certain slow-down is inevitable, and regrettable. But the enormity of Infinity War/Endgame is worth considering. All told it’s a five hour+ epic of superhero narrative, that does the very best it possibly can to include something for everyone, in character arcs that are well thought and well presented, if only in many cases undercut by a lack of suitable screen-time. It’s a story based on desperation and hope, where the audience is kept on tenterhooks by sheer virtue of the stakes at play.
The central arcs – those of Captain America, Iron Man and Hawkeye – carry Endgame forward when it could easily lag under the weight of everything it has to accomplish. “Cap” remains the man out of time having to now deal with being the ultimate failure; Stark turns away from the superhero life, to raise a family, before contemplating being dragged back into it; and Hawkeye, in a fit of Harvey Dent-esque rage, becomes a violent vigilante against all the criminals that lived when his family didn’t. All three seek shots at redemption in different ways, and it’s backed up by the typically strong performances of Evans, Downey Jr and Renner, more subdued than before in Endgame, but all the better for that. Renner is an unexpected focus – Endgame opens with the “tree-barking” of his entire family – after his absence in Infinity War, but takes that opportunity and does great things with it.
Others perform equally well but are let down by time, Johansson chief among them. Her Black Widow is set-up as a vital cog in the opening hour but has diminishing returns thereafter. She remains the only female character of note in the story, something Endgame belatedly tries to cover with a textbook “Crowning Moment Of Badass” in its finale, which rankles somewhat the more you think about (and if you’re wondering, Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel only shows up briefly and somewhat clumsily). The MCU has priors with perceived misuse of Black Widow after all.
Then there’s Chris Hemsworth Thor, reduced to a slovenly sideshow act that doesn’t come off anywhere near as well as the Russo Brothers might think it does, even if the direction that the character is brought towards is at least interesting. Poor Tessa Thompson and even Bradly Cooper get pushed to the side because of this sub-plot, while Thor is used as product placement for Fortnite and an increasingly uncomfortable succession of fat jokes. Hemsworth has decent comedy timing and much of this is surely a reaction to the common criticism of Thor and Thor: The Dark World as boring and dull, but now it has swung too much to the other side.
So many others – Your Rocket Raccoon’s, War Machine’s, even the Hulk – give perfectly serviceable showings, but the dilution is clear. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man has a potentially juicy sub-plot in how he deals with a return to a world where his daughter Cassie is suddenly five years older, and Karen Gillan’s Nebulae really steps up in a duel role she is more than capable of getting the best out of, but they just needed more time (or their own movies?).
Those stronger arcs are needed in a film which threatens to overwhelm you with dreaded “fridge logic”. I won’t go into it too much other than to say that you really shouldn’t dismiss the possible outcomes of time travel as easily as Endgame does, Captain Marvel’s powers should be defined a bit better, and the less said about the film’s attempts to frame the state of the universe at different stages of its narrative the better. Regretfully, Endgame dumbs itself down at times, in a manner that is unfortunately more akin to the Transformers franchise than the kind of whip-smart productions the MCU has becomes known for. And yet, at other times it is perfectly happy to slow things down and parse them out, such as in a needlessly lengthy set of scenes showing Stark coming back to the fold. Endgame has a lot of ground to cover and a lot of set-pieces to get by in a multi-planet, multi-dimensional tale, it just perhaps could have been a bit more selective on what to flesh out.
Your patience for this will undoubtedly rest on your general appreciation for the MCU, and while mine isn’t as high as others, even I have to admit that it’s very hard to seriously fault Endgame on any kind of plot score beyond length and the hardly mortal sin of over-ambition. It’s a victory lap of sorts for a truly enormous media machine, and it has earned a bit (emphasis on “a bit”) of leeway in my eyes. Even with the more serious tone – it’s undoubtedly the least quippy Marvel film since, well, maybe the first Thor – it’s still vastly entertaining on every level, with long-established characters going on sci-fi adventures that only Star Wars can really exceed.
The second prism I need to discuss is when the Russo Brothers decide to indulge themselves a bit too much, as Endgame too frequently lowers itself into the dreaded realms of fan service. A time travel story is undoubtedly something that is more prone to this, but we still could do without a large amount of overly-sentimental tripe that clutters up large parts of the second hour, including but not limited to Tony Stark getting to briefly hang out with his father, Captain America blundering into Peggy Carter’s office and a whole host of minor and major characters, locations and set-pieces from previous films being referenced or showing back up, most egregious when some of the best acotrs of our age suffer through small, pointless, cameos.
It gets even worse during parts of the epilogue section, which reaches The Return Of The King levels of length and sugar-sweet conclusions, not all of it really earned. It seems that in the ultimate franchise movie the temptation, or maybe the requirement, to have everyone possible involved is too much, even when it results in far too much that could be explained by the words “Wouldn’t it be cool if xxx and yyy did zzz?”.
This is not a fatal flaw, but in the way that the humour of the MCU overwhelmed previous entries in the series, so does the fan service threaten to do the same here. As stated in regards my thoughts on the general plot, your patience for this will be dependent on your general appreciation for the MCU, and here I must be less generous: too much of Endgame, from start to finish, is too obsessed on what has come before.
The third prism is the blowout, as Endgame turns its finale into a truly rollicking battle between the forces of light and darkness, where every MCU character under the sun gets a piece of the action. Its scope is undeniably vast and engaging, and much like the Leipzig Airport battle in Captain America: Civil War, it’s the section where Endgame best imbues the ethos of the comic book property, as multitudes of heroes and villain slam into each other with everything on the line. There is an element of nostalgia-bait in the way some of this is orchestrated – the world’s heroes battling to make things the way they were – and that’s reflected in a slightly tweaked villain, with Thanos less concerned with an amoral quest for balance in Endgame, than securing a total control over the fate of the universe, and the memory of what came before. Endgame does not belabour that point, but you can see a certain strain of political commentary in it, as Endgame’s heroes fight to reverse a recent cataclysm.
Endgame’s action is limited enough, surprisingly so, up to that point, mostly consisting of returns to previous fights (most notably the finale of The Avengers) and very-small scale stuff, like a neat faux one-shoter of Hawkeye taking down some Japanese mobsters. Such restraint is to be admired, and means that most of the real heart-racing excitement is built to patiently, becoming a crescendo as opposed to repeating bangs.
Things in this finale are driven by a well-earned expectation that not everyone is going to make it through. Unlike the plainly empty deaths of so many characters at the halfway point last year, here you sense that the end will be at least somewhat bloody and this time it will be a bit more permanent. Endgame meets expectations at that score. If you think about it the dear departed aren’t all that surprising, but the Russo’s still manage to make the experience affecting, in late scenes that tug at the heartstrings in a manner the previous entries have mostly failed to do. The ability of a film to elicit such emotion is something that can forgive a great many flaws, and Endgame pulls that off. It’s something that too many of these films have been missing, that kind of deep-seeded emotional connection.
Looks wise, Endgame is all that you have seen before and little more, colourful for the most part but never straying all that far from the blue and teal. The real standout is that final battle which takes place in unusually, for this franchise anyway, dark surrounds, though not to grimdark levels. The Russo’s appear to want to tear everything down in doing this, an almost symbolic destruction of what has come before as part of the final blowout, with rubble, grime and smoke the order of the day. The apocalyptic feel is well-earned, and is a bit better than earlier efforts to portray a post-Snap world (nothing has really changed all that much, some how).
If I may take a moment to talk about the musical side of things, it is fair to say that the MCU scores have been on a gradual downward slope in terms of notoriety, with the exceptions of Spider-man: Homecoming and Black Panther. Composer Alan Ailvestri isn’t up to all that much in Endgame beyond slight variations on the usual: the booming horns, multitudes of strings and thumping drums. The Avengers theme makes its heroic return of course, but at this point, seven years on from its introduction, you’d wonder why we haven’t been treated to something a bit fresher: outside of that signature theme, everything else seems to fade into bland accompaniment, enjoyed in the moment and forgotten just as quickly. That is to say that the music seems tailored to eliciting just the appropriate emotional reaction, but not to be something etched in the memory.
Where we go from here is pretty much anyone’s guess. There will be sequels – oh, so many sequels – and more team-ups in the future for sure, but I can’t be the only one who worries that Marvel may be coming closer to the bottom of the barrel in terms of the new properties required to keep things fresh. The Fantastic Four, and perhaps a certain mutant team after recent acquisitions, may be enough to save the day there, and also allow for the prospect of some new superbads, but Endgame seems to have been marketed in at least some ways as an end. An end ahead of a new era, but an end nonetheless. But how can it be that conclusion when many of the same characters are still going to be getting a movie out every 2-3 years? The amount of money Endgame is likely to end up with obviously indicates the comic book train is going to keep on rolling, but the moment of exhaustion may be closer than we think if the MCU can’t keep freshening things up.
In conclusion then, Endgame has its problems. It certainly isn’t a 95% film: it’s too long, has too many characters, it’s the second half of a single story, abounds with plot holes, misuses its female characters and is a bit too in love with the universe for its own good. But it more than makes up for those deficiencies with the positives: the epic scope; the arcs of the three central characters; the sense of tension; it’s emotional connection to the audience; and the way that it all comes together in a finale that is among some of the more impressive visual and action spectacles ever put to film in the modern era. Taking them together, as I feel you sort of have to given the linear nature of the story, makes what I am going to called Avengers: Infinity Game, a heck of a good effort. Maybe not quite as good as the gushing is making it out to be, but more than good enough for what it pertains to be. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).